Goethean observation

nov 1, 2018

‘Knowledge alone seems an inadequate instrument to answer many of the worlds complex global crises, as its tendency is to fragment and to approach issues isolated from their connection to the whole’ (Franses and Wride 2015, p.339)

I was talking to a friend about the mystery of how illustrators manage to capture ’the essential’ and he sent me a website link about ‘Goethean observation’. Goethe was a poet, politician and playwright who lived from 1749 till 1832. He developed a way to observe and study nature in an intuitive and imaginative way, in order to acquire a deeper knowledge than would be possible applying a ‘scientific’, purely objective way of looking.

I experimented for a few hours with this method (about which a variety of interpretations exist and which usually involves studying your subject for weeks on end) and the results were amazing to me. I felt deeply connected to the subject I was drawing and ended with a drawing I would never have come up with without this method. It really helped to capture ‘essence’. This was what I did: I took ‘elephants’ as my subject, then started out by studying/drawing their skeleton and muscles:

Then I drew an elephant from the time he is in the uterus to the time he is grown up:

After that I drew the elephant’s ‘atmosphere’ (the way they feel to me):

And I ended with trying to become ‘one with the elephant’ and drawing from that connection:

So basically I first looked at factual information, then at their process through time, then at how they feel, and lastly I connected to their essence. This corresponds with the Goethean method but also to the four functions a human being uses: sensing, thinking, feeling and intuiting. Carl Jung first described these functions but that will be for another blog.

This method brought about a sense of flow, amazement and wonder; a connection to elephants that made me grateful for their existence. For their kindness, grandness, for being at once so playful and wise. I had thought them wise and playful before, but by looking at them so thoroughly, a sort of love was kindled that made me see them much better. And I also became much more aware of myself as connected to the whole, becoming more my ‘essential self’ by turning my attention completely to the individuality of another being. In other words, a great way to meditate :-).

The Schumacher College in Devon (UK) teaches a MSc in Holistic Science for which the Goethean method of observation is one of the foundations. In an article on their website about ‘deep ecology’ they talk about the life story of an ecologist, Aldo Leopold. Leopold has a profound experience when he is shooting wolves in the mountains of New Mexico, as part of a program to eradicate wolves from the United States. He sees a green light in a wolves dying eyes and then, suddenly, becomes aware of something so wise and unique in the wolf and her connection to the ecosystem, that he changes his view of nature fundamentally.

‘He experienced the ecosystem as a great being, dignified and valuable in itself. It was a moment of tremendous expansion of consciousness, of joy and energy’ (Harding, 2018)

It is this view of nature the Schumacher College wants its students to experience. In the article ‘Goethean pedagogy: A case in innovative science education and implications for work based learning’ the writers explain how Goethean methodology helps to achieve this kind of profound learning at the college.

‘The method of inquiry, instead of dissecting an existence already presumed to be objectively there, gives space for a new relation to the wholeness of the phenomenon to reveal itself through the process of looking.’ (Franses and Wride 2015, p.341)

Students who apply this method, report intense experiences: ‘I was trying to let this plant talk to me or see it differently. I was trying to be with it outside of labels or pre-judgements and what happened was that I dropped into this chasm, this void for a week where I couldnt say anything. It was like this whole silence thing – it freaked me out, it really, really freaked me out. And I didnt know what was happening to me.’ (student cited in Franses and Wride, 2015)

I think I do know, and this is what I will explore some more in my blogs: you can’t use rational functions and irrational functions at the same time. This is why illustrators tell us that they feel ‘as if there’s a direct line from my heart to my hand. There’s no intellect involved.’ (Marit Törnqvist cited in Duijx, 2016), or that you have to ‘arm yourself with a drawing tool….take another moment to think about what the essential of it is – and then just toss that ball up and (artistically speaking) give it a good swat across the net.’ (Blake and Cassidy, 1999).

So when this student (who is probably unaccustomed to the ‘not-knowing’ of the irrational mode) looses his ability to form words, he freaks out. But this stepping away from the rational mode is really just normal, and crucial to the creative process. We don’t use it often enough in society; by focussing mainly on the rational mode, we block out whole areas of knowing. Today this ‘Goethean observation’ revealed how an elephant to me, in essence, is such a mind blowing mixture of strength, wisdom, playfulness and generousness that I understand much better now why it is a holy animal in so many religions, and more importantly, why I love it.




Blake, Q, Cassidy, J. (1999) Drawing for the artistically undiscovered. London: Klutz

Duijx, T. (2016) ‘Marit Törnqvist: A Direct Line from My Heart to My Hand’, Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, Vol. 54, No. 4, 2016, p. 22-25

Franses, P, Wride, M. (2015) ‘Goethean pedagogy: A case in innovative science education and implications for work based learning’, Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 5, No. 4, p.339-351

Harding, S. (2018) ‘Deep ecology in the holistic science program’. Available at: https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/deep-ecology-in-the-holistic-science-programme (Accessed: 25th.November 2018)